WASHINGTON -- Helicopters descended out of darkness on the mostimportant counterterrorism mission in U.S. history. It was an operation so secret, only a select few U.S. officials knew whatwas about to happen.
The location was a fortified compound in the affluent Pakistani suburbs of Islamabad. The target was Osama bin Laden.
Intelligence officials discovered the compound in August while monitoring an al-Qaida courier. The CIA had been huntingthat courier for years, ever since detainees told interrogators that the courier was so trusted by bin Laden that he mightvery well be living with the al-Qaida leader.
Nestled in an affluent neighborhood, the compound was surrounded by walls as high as 18 feet, topped with barbed wire.Two security gates guarded the only way in. A third-floor terrace was shielded by a seven-foot privacy wall. No phone linesor Internet cables ran to the property. The residents burned their garbage rather than put it out for collection. Intelligenceofficials believed the million-dollar compound was built five years ago to protect a major terrorist figure. The question was,who?
The CIA asked itself again and again who might be living behind those walls. Each time, they concluded it was almostcertainly bin Laden.
President Barack Obama described the operation in broad strokes Sunday night. Details were provided in interviews withcounterterrorism and intelligence authorities, senior administration officials and other U.S. officials. All spoke on condition ofanonymity to discuss the sensitive operation.
By mid-February, intelligence from multiple sources was clear enough that Obama wanted to "pursue an aggressivecourse of action," a senior administration official said. Over the next two and a half months, Obama led five meetings of theNational Security Council focused solely on whether bin Laden was in that compound and, if so, how to get him, the officialsaid.
Normally, the U.S. shares its counterterrorism intelligence widely with trusted allies in Britain, Canada, Australia andelsewhere. And the U.S. normally does not carry out ground operations inside Pakistan without collaboration with Pakistaniintelligence. But this mission was too important and too secretive.
On April 29, Obama approved an operation to kill bin Laden. It was a mission that required surgical accuracy, even moreprecision than could be delivered by the government’s sophisticated Predator drones. To execute it, Obama tapped a smallcontingent of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six and put them under the command of CIA Director Leon Panetta, whoseanalysts monitored the compound from afar.
Panetta was directly in charge of the team, a U.S. official said, and his conference room was transformed into a commandcenter.
Details of exactly how the raid unfolded remain murky. But the al-Qaida courier, his brother and one of bin Laden’s sonswere killed. No Americans were injured. Senior administration officials will only say that bin Laden "resisted." And then theman behind the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil died from an American bullet to his head.
It was mid-afternoon in Virginia when Panetta and his team received word that bin Laden was dead. Cheers and applausebroke out across the conference room.